By Nancy Allen
Local politicians running for office in November all agreed that environmental issues associated with manure management and the loss of family farms are the main agricultural challenges in Mercer County for the next five years.
Speaking during the monthly Mercer County agriculture breakfast on Tuesday was State Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, the incumbent for the 77th District seat.
Faber said a cooperative effort is the only way to address water quality issues associated with Grand Lake and farming.
Faber is against more regulations for farmers and said it is more about how farmers run their individual operations rather than the number of animals they have. He said it is generally the smaller farms that have problems with manure and violations. Those farms do not operate under state permits that require strict guidelines for many management practices, including manure handling.
"If we don't cooperate and collaborate, we won't solve it," he said. Faber also said he co-sponsored a bill that would keep farmland from disappearing.
His opponent, Betsy Marshall, a Democrat from Eaton, said she supports a moratorium on what she called "factory farms," saying they represent a threat and add personal hardship to small family farms. She also said her definition of a small family farm is someone with less than 100 acres and 75 to 100 head of animals.
Democrat Jeff Schwieterman of Maria Stein, who is running for county commissioner, said local farmers he talked with say manure management is their biggest concern.
Mercer County has the largest concentration of large livestock farms in the state, and the resulting manure produced by these animals and spread on farm fields contributes to excess nutrients and poor water quality in the watershed and lake, studies have shown.
"The ones I talked to said it's manure, manure handling, storage and spreading, especially hog or dairy manure," Schwieterman said.
Schwieterman said manure should be moved out of the county, since the huge expense to add more manure storage would financially strain many farmers.
"It's going to have to be moved down the road," he said.
His opponent, incumbent Commissioner Jim Zehringer of Fort Recovery, said weather, insects, biosecurity issues, rising equipment and fuel costs and animal rights activists also will pose a challenge.
Zehringer, a Republican, said his farm had to reduce the number of chickens per pen to appease animal rights activists who were putting pressure on the companies he does business with.
The loss of farmland to homes also is a concern, he said.
"A lot of people like to live in the country, but many don't like the smell," he said.
County Auditor Mark Giesige, a Democrat from Celina, said the loss of small family farms, down from 6 million to 2 million today, means those farmers are losing their voice and coming under more scrutiny.
He advocates farmers enrolling farmland in agriculture districts, which gives them protection from nuisance lawsuits as long as they are engaged in acceptable agriculture management practices. The county now has 29,580 acres enrolled in such districts, up from 7,000 in 1994, shortly before he took office. Giesige directs this program.
Giesige also said the agriculture community should be aware of potential changes to the Current Agricultural Use Value Assessment (CAUV) program. The program determines how much real estate taxes farmers pay on their farmland. Farmland is not taxed based on its full market value, but rather on its production value.
"We need to be that voice on how those changes will affect the CAUV program," he said. "We need to be proactive to make sure those changes that are made don't hurt the farmers."
Giesige's opponent, Republican Dave Kaiser of St. Henry, said environmental challenges are the biggest issues facing county farmers and that everything should be done to make farmers aware of existing regulations on the books. He also listed other challenges facing farmers from responsibly managing the use of farm chemicals, balancing recreation on the lake with potential flooding of downstream farmland and keeping farm costs down in light of rising fuel and other input costs.
"As more families move out of the cities and into the country, there are more conflicts," he said.
The next agriculture breakfast is 7:30 a.m. Nov. 7 in the second floor OSU Extension meeting room at the Mercer County Central Services Building in Celina.